My introduction to retired Philippine Marine Corps General Juancho Sabban was every bit as colorful and adventurous as the General himself. The former Marine Corps commandant is well-respected in military circles and known as something of a legend who played a big role in shaping his country’s approach to dealing with insurgencies.
I was eager to meet the General but he insisted that I interview him in the field. A cushy hotel lobby in Manila wasn’t a suitable place for a meeting from the General’s perspective so I found myself on a flight down to Zamboanga, a city that had been under siege by terrorists just four years ago.
Stepping off the plane and walking down the steps, it felt as if I was breathing through a sponge due to the humidity. In the terminal I was met by several plain clothes Marines who work as a personal security detachment. They led me to their vehicle, drove me to my hotel to check in my bags, and then we were off to the General’s residence. While poverty certainly exists in Manila, much of the city is upscale and modern. By comparison, Zamboanga was a city that reminded me of the urban sprawl that I had seen in Central America, the Middle East, or parts of Africa. One difference was the oddly placed triumphs of western capitalism poking through. Every so often there would be a McDonald’s or other fast food chain plopped down next to shanties.
Jeepneys and motor bikes crowd the streets as the Marines negotiate their way through traffic. It is dark by the time we pull up to a walled off compound. Slinging my messenger bag over my shoulder (loaded with camera equipment and all that other gear I lug around) I walked through the gate and right into a party. General Sabban stood and shook my hand, welcoming me to his 60th birthday party.
“You drink beer right?” his wife asks.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied
And just like that I’m drinking San Mig with General Sabban as he tells me how he sat in his living room with CIA officers and plotted the death of Abu Sayyaf spokesmen Abu Sabaya. After 9/11 two types of CIA personnel showed up in the Philippines according to several people I spoke with. The first group were veteran Cold Warriors. They knew how to find live communists and turn them into dead bodies, and they did the same to terrorists. The second group were younger oblivious grad school kids who didn’t know the difference between a Thuraya and a Kalashnikov.
Soon dinner is served and we all pause to say grace. The General’s Marine buddies, both active duty and retired, are here for the party and the Philippine military takes religion quite seriously. Sabban encourages me to try to pig that has been roasted over a spit. I watch a little girl get first dibs and pull a crusty ear off the pig. I helped myself and found all of the food to be outstanding.
As we eat, the General elaborates on his approach to counter-insurgency and how humans are the center of gravity. As the Johnny Walker (Blue and Gold label) begins to flow, we discuss his colorful military career and how he was a member of the Young Officers Union (YOU) and participated in the 1989 coup. For his part in it as a young Marine officer, he was sentenced to jail. Receiving a pardon, he was exiled to the southern Philippines where battles were raging against various threat groups. It was supposed to be a punishment, but it turned out to be an environment that Sabban thrived in.
What I cannot overstate are the deep institutional ties between the United States and the Philippine Armed Forces. At the party I met a Philippine officer who had attended the US Army Ranger School. I told him that I graduated in 2004.
“1989,” he replied.
“You’re old school!”
Everyone laughed at that comment. It was true, he went back when it was hard. They still had Desert Phase back then which had been done away with by the time I went… and we were fighting in the desert. Talking to Philippine Marines is exactly like talking to American Marines. The Army is worthless, the Navy is their biggest enemy, and the Marine Corps is the one doing the heavy lifting. They are not wrong about that last point, the Marines do a lot of the hard-core ground pounding but are not always recognized for this. One friend told me that a Philippine Marine Corps Ball and an American one look exactly the same. General Sabban looks every bit like a Marine and certainly would not look out of place amongst American Marines.
“War is an operational art,” Sabban later tells me. “You shape the battlefield so that you fight the war you want to fight.”
Knocking back Johnny Walker in General Sabban’s backyard sounded appealing but tomorrow we had a flight to catch to Tawi-Tawi where I would have the opportunity to interview the General and his friends in-depth. Between conversations about Operation Ultimatum, working with Green Berets, and jungle firefights, I could tell that I needed days to record all of this information but would make the best of what time I had.
Knowing that I had to be up and ready to go in just a few hours to catch our flight, I reluctantly pulled away from the conversation and headed back to the hotel. What I had learned so far was that there would never be a dull moment with General Sabban and his friends.
(Lead image: General Sabban enjoying his birthday cake)